From the wealth of reports covering this autumn’s New York Fashion Week, the word crazy is a recurring theme. Schedules are insane, the amount of food models eat seen as mad (quite rightly) and the designs on show must push the boundaries of sense to have an impact. Yet when designer Thom Browne sent his models down the runway at the SS14 New York Fashion Week, crazy came even more starkly into the spotlight; Browne recreated a mental asylum in his venue, treating guests as inpatients, and using models to act as mere fantasies.
Dresses were restricting and corseted like straight jackets, make-up consisted of clownlike white face paint and exaggerated smudged kohl and red lipstick: all reminiscent of Heath Ledger’s Joker in drag. And the mental health imagery did not stop there: the padded walls and the nurses handing the front row guests pill-shaped white M&M’s ensured that the audience was in no doubt as to the ideas that had inspired Browne. Yet with mental health problems so widespread in the fashion industry, but so often ignored, the collection could not help but pose the question: is a runway show during a busy Fashion Week really the most appropriate place to broach this delicate subject?
While the idea of breaking free from the boundaries of reason and sense is a natural breeding ground for creativity, many reviews have questioned whether making mental health an aesthetic topic so explicitly should be within the realm of fashion week. Instead of just implying, Browne starkly showed.
Without doubt, mental health is a dark undercurrent to the industry that needs to be addressed. Eating disorders are rife and Alexander McQueen’s suicide served as a shocking reminder that the demands of the industry on such creative minds can lead to devastating consequences. Furthermore, such problems are only exacerbated if they remain taboo and are never talked about, yet therein lies the problem with Browne’s collection.
While the designer has clearly spent incredible amounts of time and care developing the collection, when put within a busy day at fashion week, the subject, and what Browne was potentially trying to say about it, becomes trivialised. Bloggers and reporters will document and analyse each model as she comes, but straight after the show will rush onto their next appointment, and once again mental health in the fashion industry fades into the background.
Ultimately what will be remembered and admired in Browne’s collection will be the more romantic aspects of insanity, and the craftmanship of his designs. Ideas of being an outsider, living outside of the constraints of society, are continually fetishized by literature and the media, yet they ignore the far darker aspects of mental health that claim the lives of millions every year. While Cassie from Skins may have seemed ethereal and mysterious, the grim realities of her eating disorder and self-harming were not.
Browne explores the fantastical possibilities that insanity can cause in the mind, but appears to fail to recognise the other side to his subject matter. As such, he does sufferers around the world an injustice. Fashion undoubtedly is an incredibly powerful medium to highlight issues that envelop modern society, yet in doing so, fashion designers must recognise the responsibility they have to those who are directly affected. The fashion industry may sell itself as an escape from reality, but when dealing with real issues, designers should not only explore, but also inform.